Friday, 2 October 2015

Germany unity, but not reunification

Tomorrow is the 'Day of German Unity', marking 25 years since East and West Germany were merged. But don't call it 'reunification day'.

The area around Brandenburg Gate, once home to the 'no mans land' between the two layers of the Berlin Wall, is tonight being decked out for a massive celebration. Tomorrow, 3 October, is the annual celebration of 'German Unity Day'. This year's holiday is no ordinary one. It is marking 25 years since German reunification.

But don't make the mistake of calling it 'Reunification Day'. I called it by this name with a German friend today. I was swiftly deutsched, and told that despite the fact that it is held on the anniversary of the day the East German government was merged into the West, the proper name is 'unity day'.

I was only repeating the term I have read in English-speaking media, as there have been several reports this week about the 25th anniversary. But there are two important reasons why this is not called Reunification Day: it corresponds to an older holiday name, and because pre-war Germany has not been entirely reunited.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Incredible Krakow museums

I hadn't been to Krakow since 2002, and my how the city has changed.

This week I spent a few days in Krakow, Poland. I had to do a bit of work there for my book, and a friend visiting from home in New York wanted to come check out the city.

The last time I was in Krakow was in 2002, while I was living in Prague as a student. Me and a few friends rented a car and drove the six hours to Poland, stopping at Ostrava in Moravia along the way. We also visited Auschwitz, and to be honest that is the only part of the trip I remember well. Krakow city was a bit forgettable for me. I remember that we were not terribly impressed with the cultural activities or the nightlife.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Eastern Europe's discomfort with diversity

Germans may be more sympathetic to Syrian refugees because many of their grandparents were refugees themselves, expelled from their homes after World War II. The Poles and Czechs may be less sympathetic, because it was their grandparents doing the expelling.

This week I took a train to Prague from Berlin, in order to talk to people continuing on the train to Budapest for a radio report I was working on about Europe's disappearing overnight trains. I lived in Prague back in 2002, and it was nice to be back. I met up with a few Czech friends, and at each meeting the subject of the refugee crisis came up. My Czech friends said they were very embarassed of the images being shown to the world, of Czech security officers marking Syrian refugees with numbers and treating them inhumanely. I told them, at least the Hungarians are making you lookmore humane by comparison.

A real East-West split has emerged in the EU over how to deal with the refugee crisis. Right now the 'Vyshegrad Four' - Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic - are furiously resisting a proposal to resettle the Syrian refugees pouring into Europe in a proportionate way across EU member states. Much ink has been spilled analysing why Eastern European governments are behaving in this way.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Ich habe Deutsch gelernt

...well, level A1 at least. Now I'm going to improve my German through schlager music lessons.

This week I 'graduated' from my first intensive German course, finishing level A1 (elementary). I did pretty well on the final exam actually, so despite my fears about it being such a daunting language I think I'm doing alright. But, as I was warned, it is very challenging. 

It's been a very different experience from learning French at the Sorbonne in 2008 in Paris. For one thing, I started in July with absolutely no knowledge of German, whereas I had already taken French in high school. But even with this in mind, I found French to be a much easier language to learn because the sentence structure is quite similar.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

The coalition of the unwilling

Hungary, Poland, Spain and the UK were willing to invade Iraq in 2003, but they are unwilling to deal with the refugee crisis which that invasion has spawned 12 years later. Germany and France are the countries shouldering the responsibility.

Today I bought a ticket for the overnight train from Berlin to Budapest, to interview people next week for a radio story I'm working on about the disappearance of Europe's cross-border rail routes. As I was making the booking at the DB ticket office, the woman gave me a look of concern. "That train is going from Hungary to Germany," she said. "Be careful."

Despite watching the news reports about what is happening at Budapest Keleti Station the past few days, it did not occur to me until that moment that I am going to be on one of these international trains next week. This international train travel piece could end up being very different from what I had planned.

The images of Middle East refugees trampling each other trying to get onto trains to Western Europe in Budapest broadcast today were truly horrific. I'm still a bit unclear about whether these are regularly scheduled trains or specific migrant trains, and whether or not my Budapest-Berlin train will be affected at all. But it's hard to imagine it won't be.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

A Hanseatic holiday

I've made it my mission to visit all the principle cities of the Hanseatic League. I started with the most powerful one.

This week I took a little trip to Hamburg and Lübeck. I had planned to do a lot of these trips within Germany when I moved to Berlin, but in fact this is the first one I've done since I moved here on 2 July.

No coincidence then that Hamburg is also the easiest German city to get to from Berlin. The high-speed ICE train travels the 260km in just an hour and a half, making no stops along the way. It doesn't make any stops because there is essentially nowhere to stop between these two cities, the train zips across the wide open flat fields of Northern Germany. High-speed lines are always the easiest to implement in unpopulated areas.